Kate is a Social Media Research Consultant (currently at Microsoft Research New England), a graduate of the London School of Economics – and a LOLCat dissertation author (Say what?).
I invited her to fly over from Boston to give a keynote speech at the LOLCAT exhibishun. And here it is.
“Hello everyone, and welcome to LOLCats: Teh Exhibishun. I hope you’re all enjoying the incredible work that the artists have done, and are as excited to be here as I am.
My name is Kate Miltner. I work at the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England in Boston. The reason I’ve been asked to open this exhibit is because I have a rather unique claim to fame, which is that I wrote about LOLCats for my masters dissertation at the London School of Economics. It is distinctly possible that I am the world’s foremost academic expert on LOLCats, which is an entertaining if not dubious distinction.
When Jenny, the fantastic curator of this exhibit, asked me to do a quick speech to kick things off, I asked her what she wanted me to speak about, and she said, “just explain what a LOLCat is”. Alright Jenny, I’ll do my best.
LOLCats, also known as “cat macros”, are, at their simplest, images of cats with captions on them. The captions are quite often in LOLspeak, which is actually a verified dialect, according to Jordan Lefler, who is a linguist at Louisiana State University. She studied LOLspeak for HER masters, so I’m not entirely alone in my academic interests.
So, yes, LOLCats are funny pictures of cats with misspelled captions. But really, they are a lot more than that. They are, to start, a cultural phenomenon. This is the first ever LOLCat gallery show, but not the first LOLCat art show that has ever taken place. The very first was in San Francisco in 2008. The Photographer’s Gallery over on Ramillies Street also recently had an exhibition of internet cat art, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis had an internet cat video festival over the summer. LOLCats have also inspired an off-broadway musical, a Bible translation, Shakespeare translations, a convention, a line of greeting cards, clothing, and an American television show. Which, really, is quite impressive.
But what’s even more impressive are the underlying reasons as to why LOLCats have become the phenomenon that they have. Now, heading into my research, I thought that the reason that LOLCats were popular was that they were anthropomorphized pictures of cats that allowed us to laugh at ourselves. And that was partially true. But after talking to almost 40 self-identified LOLCat enthusiasts to collect my research data, it became quite clear that the humor inherent in LOLCats was only the tip of the iceberg.
The first thing that became apparent was that the LOLCat audience is not just one massive audience, but several groups, some of whom use LOLCats as a rallying point for some rather developed group identities and communities. Take the “Cheezfrenz” or “cheezpeeps”, a group of mostly women who are part of the commenter community on I Can Has Cheezburger, the blog that popularized LOLCats. They communicate with each other almost entirely in LOLspeak, and have even started their own separate blog, called the Cheez Town Cryer. This may sound silly to some people, but it’s no laughing matter for the community member, who talk about some very personal things— including spousal and parental illness, job troubles, and the death of their pets– and get a lot of emotional support in return.
The second thing that I noticed is that no matter how involved the participants were with LOLCats—whether they spoke ‘fluent lol’, remembered when Caturday was a big thing on 4Chan, or just saw them in their work inboxes—they often used LOLCats to express their feelings through either creating or sharing. For quite a few people, LOLCats were used as emotional shorthand. Many of my participants repeatedly reported that they would communicate difficult emotions—regret over a breakup, frustration with their jobs—through LOLCats. Is that surprising? Maybe, but I mean, why wrestle with an awkward email when a picture of a cat can be worth a thousand words?
Which brings us to this exhibition. Clearly, LOLCats mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. They have inspired some incredible work from all over the world—some of which I have been asked to purchase for my colleagues, incidentally— and have packed a gallery. Even the BBC and Wired are here! As you walk through “teh exhibishun” and hopefully support the artists and Battersea Cats and Dogs Home, take a moment to remember that this all started with a photo from a Russian cat food ad.
More than ever, content and culture are made by us, and it is the value and meaning that we ascribe to these things that make them important, no matter how trivial they may seem. So take pride in your love of LOLCats, be grateful for the wonderful weirdness of the internet, and please remember to tip your bartenders.”